Western North Carolina’s natural beauty has drawn visitors and residents to our area for centuries, so it’s no surprise that some of the very first state and national parks were established right here. Today, our region is surrounded by protected parklands, which are visited by millions of people each year and provide a stunning backdrop for our cities and towns.
2016 marks the 100th birthday of the US National Park Service, as well as the centennial for Chimney Rock State Park and Pisgah National Forest. Celebrate these milestones by learning, relaxing, and reconnecting with nature in these unique protected areas.
Mount Mitchell State Park
In 1916, North Carolina gained 795 acres of land, creating the first state park in all of the Southeast: Mount Mitchell. Since then, the state system has grown to almost 250,000 acres dedicated to conservation, recreation, and education.
“The idea of protecting and preserving North Carolina’s natural and cultural resources really started with Mount Mitchell State Park,” says Skyler Hill, park ranger at Mount Mitchell. “Those seeds of conservation were planted really early in the 1900s. With the starting of the state park system, not only throughout the state of North Carolina do you find what would be considered world-class scenery and great recreational opportunities, but you find land and waters that are really unique to this country and are very valuable to North Carolina citizens.”
Mount Mitchell boasts the highest peak east of the Mississippi at a lofty 6,684 feet. Lucky for us near Asheville, the views from the peak are just a short drive away. “As long as you can get onto the Blue Ridge Parkway,” says Ranger Hill, “you can access Mount Mitchell.” Mount Mitchell State Park provides a great opportunity for day-use visitors who want to drive all the way to the summit viewing deck or for people who want to hike all the way from the base to the summit.
Pisgah National Forest and Great Smoky Mountains National Park
One of the first national forests in the US, Pisgah National Forest also celebrates its centennial this year. Comprising more than 500,000 acres of hardwood forests and cascading waterfalls across 12 counties, Pisgah makes up a significant portion of the remaining forested land in Western North Carolina. Pisgah is home of the first tract of land bought under the Weeks Act of 1911, a purchase which led to the creation of national forests along the eastern United States. The protected area is also home to the nation’s first school of forestry, now accessible as the Cradle of Forestry Historic Site.
“Having lived here all my life, I have an affinity and a love for the mountains themselves,” says Gavin Brown, mayor of Waynesville. “My favorite thing to do is to simply get on the expressway and keep going west until the sun sets. And if I get to the Blue Ridge Parkway or if I get to the Smoky Mountains National Park, I just keep going because there’s nothing to stop me.”
Attracting more than 9 million tourists and 11 million non-recreational visitors each year, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited in the United States and it’s easy to see why. The park is a perfect retreat for for hiking, camping, fly fishing, and other outdoor activities. Even as one of only a few national parks that does not charge an entrance fee, GSNP serves as an economic hub generating over $700 million per year and supporting more than 10,000 jobs in surrounding communities.
Lucky visitors of GSMNP can also view the park’s signature wild elk, reintroduced to the Cataloochee Valley in 2001 after nearly becoming extinct, and now thriving in this striking success of natural conservation.
Chimney Rock State Park
Chimney Rock State Park, overlooking Lake Lure, North Carolina, has been a part of the NC State Park system since 2007. This tourist attraction has been owned by the Morse family since 1902, and the family has worked with the state of North Carolina to ensure its preservation for future generations. Since the park was founded priavtely in 1916, the family has worked with the State of North Carolina to manage the park’s trails, outlook, climbing tower, and discovery center, as well as to ensure its preservation for future generations.
“A visit to Chimney Rock Park gives people the opportunity to see the best of the mountains in one place,” says Mary Jaeger-Gale, general manager of Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park. “We have fabulous cliffs, we have a waterfall, we have outstanding views, the geological and botanical features are incredibly significant, and people can come away not only having had a fabulous mountain experience but learn a lot about why these mountains are so special.”
Western North Carolina’s state and national parks provide an abundance of natural resources, as well as employment opportunities for those entrusted with their care and conservation. It is important we continue to support and protect our state and national park systems for future generations. “I personally believe that the whole economic future of Western North Carolina is based on its geography,” says Mayor Brown. “If we maintain the integrity of that geography, then we’ll have an economy that we can survive in.”
To find out how to volunteer or how to join in our parks’ centennial celebrations, visit their websites: ncparks.gov/mount-mitchell-state-park, nps.gov/grsm, and chimneyrockpark.com. To learn more about all the incredible natural resources in Western North Carolina, contact your Beverly-Hanks & Associates real estate associate today.